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Friday, August 16, 2019, 11:39
On the frontlines of theater’s war
By Chitralekha Basu
Friday, August 16, 2019, 11:39 By Chitralekha Basu

Editor’s Note: Back in 1982, Dominic Cheung got his first full-time job as an actor with Chung Ying Theatre Company and is now its artistic director. In an interview with China Daily Hong Kong, Cheung recounts moments from his eventful career, including getting emotional while playing Confucius. Excerpts: 

Dominic Cheung, artistic director, Chung Ying Theatre Company. (CALVIN NG / CHINA DAILY)

You were one of the first Chinese members of Chung Ying Theatre Company in the 1980s when it was predominantly British. What was it like? 

Chung Ying was founded in 1979 to produce English-language theater in Hong Kong. All its members were British. Even after I joined in 1982 as part of the first batch of Chinese actors and the company began producing Cantonese plays as well, Hong Kong natives still thought we were exclusively into English-language theatre. 

The perception began to change in 1984 when Bernard Goss joined as artistic director. He wanted to do more Cantonese productions, mingled with theater people in Hong Kong and worked closely with Chinese-language writers and translators. 

In 1985 and 1986 we toured a Cantonese play, I Am Hong Kong, in Macao and twice in Australia. The play spanned the years from the colonization of Hong Kong in 1842 to 1984 when Britain and China signed the agreement on Hong Kong’s return to the motherland. We staged around 100 shows in Hong Kong and overseas.  

In 1986 we also staged Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, which Rupert Chan had adapted to a Tang Dynasty setting. The next year we did Hotel Paradiso, adapted from the 1966 French play by Georges Feydeau and Maurice Desvallières and set in 1950s Hong Kong. 

Basically, we were a bunch of naughty, playful actors having loads of fun. We made the local theater community wake up to the idea that adapting classic western plays to a Chinese context could be interesting. 

You left Chung Ying once before. What prompted your return to the company?   

It was only after I left Chung Ying — to try out more regular jobs to help me earn a living — that I realized how much I loved theater. It was a love that went beyond putting on makeup and going up on stage. I realized stage plays were an important part of human life — they influence the audience as well as a play’s cast and crew. It didn’t matter whether I was director, translator, producer or actor. Theater was what I wanted to do. 

What were the goals you set yourself on your return to Chung Ying?

When I came back to Chung Ying as general manager in 2011, I thought it was important to look back on the company’s original purpose of trying to connect with the rest of the world through the English language. We invited theater people — actors, directors, stage designers — from the UK to work with local actors to produce English-language plays. 

We produced Jekyll & Hyde (2015) and A Tale of Two Cities (2016), directed by Jonathan Holloway. We performed the first in the theater of Central Saint Martins in London and the second at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. We had 33 performances of these productions in the UK. 

After becoming Chung Ying’s artistic director, I decided it was important to revive our connection with the world outside Hong Kong. Unless we open our eyes we are likely to repeat ourselves. 

How do you propose to go about building bridges between the theater communities in Hong Kong and elsewhere?

I plan to invite UK directors to direct plays in Cantonese. Hopefully we can start touring English-language productions involving directors, actors and designers from abroad in Hong Kong schools again. I would also like to invite a consultant to build an incubator scheme to give our actors advanced training. 

However, I think it’s equally important to work closely with theater people in the Chinese mainland. We must keep pace with the good work they do, and use their resources and talent. 

We have been in touch with theater people in Guangzhou, Shanghai and Beijing and hope to have more conversations with them. I have been in talks with Shanghai Dramatic Arts Centre about possible cultural exchange programs. 

We go to Guangzhou at least once a year to perform. We tried linking up Macao, Hong Kong and Guangzhou through theater long before the Greater Bay Area development plan was launched. Now with incentives from the Central People’s Government of China, we might have more and better resources to make use of. 

You’re set to direct All My Life I Shall Remember, based on the life of the Chinese music composer Chen Gexin, later this year. What drew you to the subject?

Chen Gexin didn’t live that long but there were moments in his life that coincided with strong and dramatic turns in Chinese history. He was arrested by the Japanese during World War II, then by the Kuomintang and finally by the Red Guards in 1957 for being a rightist. So the play is like a brief recent history of the Chinese people accessed through the story of Chen Gexin.    

Chen was a patriotic guy who suffered a lot. The play is meant to remind the audience not to let such suffering happen again. 

Was it particularly challenging to play the title role in Confucius: 63 Revisited?    

In the play there is a conversation between 73-year-old Confucius and his 63-year-old counterpart, played by me. After delivering a rather long speech, I would be drenched in sweat. My colleagues who would pass me tissues did not realize that many of those were in fact used to wipe my tears away. 

At that moment I would be thinking how it’s been nearly 40 years since the founding of Chung Ying and yet we theater people remained a minority — many people in Hong Kong still didn’t understand what we did. That thought made me weep. At the same time I felt we had to carry on the fight against the current tide of being in a minority and not being recognized for our efforts.

So playing Confucius as going on a long and arduous journey resonated with the hardships faced on your own career path? 

Indeed. I feel we have to keep fighting to make more people aware of theater as an art form. That’s what a life in theater is about. 

I may not be the best artistic director in town but I will continue the fight against ignorance of theater.

Interviewed by Chitralekha Basu

Chung Ying Theatre Company production, Rashomon, translated by Dominic Cheung, runs from Aug 16 to 25 at Hong Kong City Hall. www.chungying.com

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